TORONTO—A one-sentence summary of the gloomy new comic book-based series “Gotham” doubles as its chief criticism: it’s Batman without Batman.
Star Ben McKenzie knows this. He’s the show’s fulcrum, portraying a young Commissioner Jim Gordon when he’s still just a detective paddling in seeming futility against a tide of crime and corruption. The show kicks off with Bruce Wayne still a child, about to endure the formative horror of seeing his parents murdered in front of him.
When the show was first announced, “Simpsons” writer Mike Scully tidily summed up the skepticism of many onlookers when he tweeted: “Can’t wait to see ‘Gotham’ to learn how Officer Gordon became Commissioner Gordon. Hoping for lots of test-taking and waiting for scores.”
McKenzie was actually among the 600-plus who retweeted the quip, and—as he journeyed to Canada in the spring to promote the show—his eyes lit up when reminded of it. But of course, he disagrees.
“I understand the reflex of ‘Batman show without Batman,”‘ said the chatty Texan, best-known for starring roles on “The O.C.” and “Southland.”
“But I think there’s so many people who are really, really fans of the entire universe that surrounds Batman. I mean, do you go to the movies and see the (Christopher) Nolan versions only for Christian Bale’s performance as Batman? No. Of course not. You go to see all of these other characters, right?
“I understand the criticism,” he continued, “but my short answer is: ‘Just watch it.’ If you don’t like it, don’t keep watching it, but I’m really proud of the pilot we’ve made. … I think people who are fans of this are, for the most part, going to lose their minds.”
For those devotees of the 75-year-old DC Comics franchise, McKenzie promises that “Gotham” will showcase the rogues gallery of freaks Batman eventually goes on to fight, in variously fledgling states of villainy.
We’ll learn more about Wayne, too. And McKenzie’s vision for the show’s eventual end would see a finally grown Wayne slip on the cape and cowl for the first time.
“(That’s) hopefully a long time from now,” said McKenzie, rapping his knuckles on the wooden table to keep his karma straight.
He’s confident about the show’s fortunes, and he’s not alone—given the show’s blockbuster ties, it was earmarked early as a possible fall breakout.
Of course, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” failed to completely ignite despite similarly lucrative associations. But that show featured a cast of characters almost totally new to viewers, whereas McKenzie stresses the familiarity of the “Gotham” universe.
Well, to most people. The 35-year-old actor, a University of Virginia graduate and nephew to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, notes with bemused wonder that he was given focus-group data in which a third of those polled hadn’t heard of Batman.
“Lord knows where they pull these people from,” he marvelled. “That can’t possibly be. Now that I’m a part of it, I walk around, you go to the mall, you see people in Batman shirts, just walking around.
“It’s just entered the lexicon. It’s entered the never-ending zeitgeist.”
“Gotham” isn’t McKenzie’s first entrypoint into the Batman universe. He actually voiced the avenging orphan in the animated film “Batman: Year One,” which also showcased the talents of Bryan Cranston—who just won a Tony Award for his performance in “All the Way,” a play, McKenzie points out, written by his uncle).
Growing up, McKenzie and his brother used to watch the arch, richly cheesy Adam West-starred ‘60s “Batman” every afternoon. And he loves Nolan’s bleak, coffee-black cinematic take, in which intense Oscar nominee Gary Oldman inhabited the role of the noble police chief.
“Someone tweeted me that it’s so cool you’ll grow up and be Gary Oldman,” McKenzie recalled. “I was like, ‘Sadly, I don’t think that’s how it works.”‘
When he was first cast, McKenzie took DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns out to lunch. He quizzed Johns—also an acclaimed comic-book writer who’s penned episodes of “Smallville” and “Arrow”—on the best approach to the role.
“At the end of the lunch I was trying to get into whether he had any advice,” McKenzie remembered. “And he was like, ‘You have to interpret it for yourself.’
“That’s what every artist has done throughout the 75 years of Batman. … This has been, in some senses, an enterprise that’s constantly being reinvented by every single person who takes on the job.
“And the only obligation is to do the best job you can and let the chips fall where they may.”